Ahmet Altan, a renowned novelist and former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Taraf newspaper, was first arrested on 10 September 2016 along with his brother, Mehmet Altan, over alleged links with a network led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the government accuses of maintaining a terrorist organization -- “the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ/PDY)” -- and of staging a failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016.
Altan and his brother were arrested for giving “subliminal messages” in support of the coup attempt during a television program they attended on the shuttered Can Erzincan TV on the night of 14 July 2016. This accusation was later dropped following international backlash. On 21 September 2016, they were questioned by the prosecutor of the case. According to minutes of the interrogation, Altan was charged with “attempting to overthrow the government,” “being a member of an armed terrorist organization” and “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.”
On 22 September 2016, the Istanbul 10th Criminal Judgeship of Peace ordered Altan's release under judicial control measures and banned him from traveling abroad. His brother Mehmet Altan was jailed pending trial. But on 23 September 2016, Ahmet Altan was rearrested less than 24 hours later, following an objection from the prosecutor. The arrest decision reviewed by P24 claimed that "the Taraf newspaper was founded to implement FETÖ’s goals" and that "its coverage of a series of alleged conspiracies such as Balyoz and Ergenekon cases was an attempt to shape the public opinion in line with instructions." It also claimed that Altan’s comments during the Can Erzincan TV program on 14 July 2016 "indicated that he knew about the coup attempt beforehand" and cited his three columns penned in 2016 as "further evidence that he had attempted to overthrow the government and is a member of FETÖ/PDY."
Altan’s lawyers filed an individual application with the Constitutional Court on 8 November 2016, asserting that his arrest was unlawful. On 12 January 2017, Altan's lawyers filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, citing lack of action from the Constitutional Court. The European Court of Human Rights responded in February 2017 that although it does not give the application a formal priority treatment under its Rule 41, it will take it up "as soon as possible." In June 2017, the Strasbourg court further said that it had asked the Turkish government to present its defense on applications regarding the pre-trial detentions of seven Turkish journalists: Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak, Murat Aksoy, Atilla Taş, Şahin Alpay and Ali Bulaç. In a letter to the Altan brothers' lawyers, the court said that it gave the Turkish government until 4 October 2017 to respond to a set of questions about the pre-trial detention of the journalists.
The indictment against Ahmet Altan and 16 others, including his brother, Mehmet Altan, and journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, was issued on 11 April 2017. The indictment charged Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak with "attempting to overthrow the constitutional order" under Article 309 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), "attempting to overthrow the Parliament" (TCK 311), "attempting to overthrow the government" (TCK 312) and "committing crimes on behalf of an armed terrorist organization without being its member" (TCK 220/6), seeking three aggravated life imprisonment sentences and an additional prison sentence. State news agency Anadolu announced on 15 June 2017 that the indictment against the 17 suspects had been accepted by the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court.
The first hearing of Ahmet Altan and his co-defendants' trial was held on 19-23 June 2017 at the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court. The court ruled for the continaution of the detetnion of all six jailed defendants and adjourned the trial until 19 September 2017. Ahmet Altan's defense statement, which he presented to court from Silivri Prison via the judicial video-conferencing network SEGBİS can be found here.
Click here to read the defense statement Ahmet Altan presented to the court during the hearing on 19 September 2017. The court again ruled to keep all imprisoned defendants, including Altan, behind bars, citing "the gravity of the charges, the length of the prison term the charges carry and flight risk."
The third hearing of the trial was held on 13 November 2017. During the hearing, all four lawyers representing Ahmet Altan and Mehmet Altan were expelled from the courtroom for trying to speak on procedural issues. The court again decided to keep all imprisoned defendants behind bars. A summary of the hearing is available here.
The fourth hearing was held on 11 December 2017. The prosecutor submitted his final opinion, demanding aggravated life imprisonment for Ahmet Altan and his five co-defendants, including Mehmet Altan, for "attempting to overthrow the constitutional order." Granting a continuance for the final defense statements, the court adjourned the trial until February 2018 and ruled for the continuation of the detention of all imprisoned defendants.
The final hearing of the trial was held from 12-16 February 2018. The first day of the five-day hearing took place at the Istanbul Courthouse but the rest of the hearing sessions was moved to Silivri by a decision of the presiding judge.
Altan presented his final defense statement on the second day of the hearing. Altan's statement was interrupted several times by the presiding judge, who warned him concerning the contents of his statement. The judge warned Altan that his microphone would be switched off in case he “continued to divert from the prosecutor’s final opinion” and went on to “criticize the president.” In the face of the warning by the judge, Altan had to skip two pages towards the end of his statement.
Click here to read an English translation of Ahmet Altan's full defense statement.
At the end of the five-day hearing, on 16 February 2018, the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court sentenced Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and their three co-defendants to aggravated life imprisonment for "attempting to overthrow the constitutional order" and ordered the continuation of their detentions on remand.
Regional Court of Justice hearings
The 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice, which acts as an appellate court, accepted the case on 27 June 2018. With that decision, the court ruled to release Mehmet Altan based on an earlier Constitutional Court judgment but decided to keep the rest of the defendants, including Ahmet Altan, in jail.
The first appellate court hearing took take place on 21 September 2018, when all six defendants in the case made their defense statements before the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice.
After the defense statements, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion, insisting on the original charge and requesting that the defendants be sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order." In its interim ruling at the end of the hearing, the court rejected the five imprisoned defendants' requests to be released and adjourned the trial until 2 October 2018 to allow time for the defendants to prepare their final defense statements.
During the appellate court's final hearing on 2 October 2018, all six defendants made their final statements in response to the prosecutor's final opinion.
Ahmet Altan was the last defendant to address the court during the hearing.
“This ugly vaudeville of a trial that began with ‘subliminal messages’ and reached its peak with the prosecutor’s latest accusation of ‘intangible threat’ has shown us the truth we have been facing,” Altan said in his statement, adding: “Firstly, that a certain someone is hellbent on our continued imprisonment. Secondly, that it is impossible to keep us in prison through lawful methods. And, that some members of the judiciary can even risk their reputation, or committing crime due to the desperation that is caused by the conflict between the desire to keep us in jail at all costs and the reality of the rule of law.”
“There is not even one substantial evidence in this case file,” Altan continued, adding: “That is why [the prosecution] has been coming up with absurdities like ‘subliminal message,’ ‘immaterial force’ and ‘intangible threat’.”
“I do not mind spending my life in a prison cell because I feel as though I have been wandering among the pages of a comic book. Nothing seems be of gravity or scary,” Altan said. “If you try and reach a guilty verdict based on accusations such as ‘subliminal,’ ‘immaterial force’ or ‘intangible threat’ that verdict loses all its gravity.”
“Can an intangible threat be supported with substantial evidence?” Altan asked, adding that the prosecutor’s final opinion dismissed the Constitutional Court’s Mehmet Altan judgment by way of alleging crime without concrete evidence.
Issuing its judgment, the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice rejected the appeals against the aggravated life imprisonment sentences and ruled for the continuation of the detention of all imprisoned defendants in the case.
Supreme Court of Appeals ruling
On 8 January 2019, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals requested the reversal of the convictions rendered in the trial. The General Prosecutor said in their judicial opinion submitted to the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals that Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak should have been charged with “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” instead of the much serious charge of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”
The judicial opinion asserted that “force and violence” were the essential elements of the "coup" charge as described in TCK 309, adding that the concepts of “immaterial force” or “threat” were unacceptable in proving this charge in respect of the principle of legality.
On 5 July 2019, the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned Ahmet Altan's conviction on the charge of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.” The Chamber ruled that Ahmet Altan should face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.”
The Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court issued its decision for retrial on 18 July 2019, saying it would take up the case on 8 October 2019. The court rejected the request for Ahmet Altan's release pending trial.
The retrial got underway on 8 October 2019 at the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court. At the end of the hearing, the court decided to comply with the Supreme Court of Appeals judgment and to keep the five imprisoned defendants, including Ahmet Altan, in pre-trial detention and adjourned the trial until 4 November 2019.
10.5-year sentence and release
The second hearing of Ahmet Altan's retrial took place on 4 November 2019. The Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court convicted Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” and ruled to release both, taking into consideration the time they spent in pre-trial detention. The court handed down Ahmet Altan a prison sentence of 10 years and 6 months.
Altan was released from the Silivri Prison later on 4 November 2019 as per the court's ruling after spending 1,138 days behind bars as part of this case.
Prosecutor's objection and re-arrest
The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office objected to Altan's release on 6 November 2019. The trial court rejected the objection, which was then reviewed by the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, the next court of first instance, which is authorized to review decisions by the 26th High Criminal Court. Accepting the prosecutor's objection, the 27th High Criminal Court ruled on 12 November 2019 for Altan's re-arrest on the grounds that “the judicial control measures imposed on him” remained “insufficient considering flight risk … the intensity of his actions, the duration of the prison sentence he was given, the time he spent in detention on remand … as well as his conduct following his release.” The court refused to notify Altan's lawyer Çalıkuşu of the ruling. News of the ruling and the arrest warrant against Altan was made public by the pro-government Sabah daily first.
Altan was re-arrested at around 9 p.m. on 12 November at his Istanbul home, several hours after the 27th High Criminal Court issued a warrant for Altan as it revoked the 26th High Criminal Court’s order for his release. He was taken to the Istanbul Police Department, where he remained in custody until the next day. On 13 November, Altan appeared before the 27th High Criminal Court, where he was informed about the decision for his re-arrest.
Altan was sent back to the Silivri Prison on 13 November 2019, only eight days after his release pending appeal.
Constitutional Court application
Altan’s lawyers filed an individual application with the Constitutional Court on behalf of him on 8 November 2016. Two months later, on 12 January 2017, the lawyers took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, citing lack of action from the Constitutional Court.
On 4 July 2018, the Constitutional Court's First Section reviewed Altan's individual application concerning admissibility and merits. The section then referred Altan's application to the Plenary.
On 26 April 2019, the Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would finally take up Altan's individual application, along with those filed on behalf of nine other journalists, including his co-defendant Nazlı Ilıcak, on 2 May 2019.
Rendering its judgment on 3 May, the Plenary rejected Altan's application, finding no rights violations in his file. The court also rejected the application of Nazlı Ilıcak, Altan’s co-defendant in the “coup” case. The court rendered all decisions, except for the one concerning Ilıcak’s file, through a majority vote.
The Constitutional Court’s Plenary issued the judgments concerning its 3 May 2019 decisions on 26 June 2019 on its official website. The judgments concerning the rejected applications said, in a nutshell, that “the assessments made by the investigation authorities and the decisions rendered by the courts that ruled for [the journalists’] arrests could not be deemed as ‘arbitrary and baseless’.”
In Ahmet Altan’s application, the President of the Constitutional Court Zühtü Arslan, Vice President Engin Yıldırım and three other justices disagreed with the majority opinion. All five judges were of the opinion that Altan’s arrest violated his rights to liberty and security and freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
European Court of Human Rights judgment
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 13 April 2021 issued its judgment concerning Ahmet Altan's application, which had been pending before the Court since January 2017.
The Strasbourg Court found multiple violations of the European Convention on Human Rights in Altan’s case, including the right to liberty and security (5/1), freedom of expression (10), and the right to have the lawfulness of his detention decided speedily by court (5/4). The court ruled that Turkey should pay Altan 16,000 euros in compensation.
Release by Supreme Court of Appeals decision
Ahmet Altan was released from the Silivri Prison on 14 April 2021 based on a decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals after spending 4 years and 7 months behind bars as part of the “Altans trial.”
Citing the trial court’s failure to apply the reductions prescribed by law in the sentence imposed on Altan at the retrial of the case in 2019, the Supreme Court of Appeals quashed Altan's 10.5-year sentence on the charge of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” (Article 220/7 of the Turkish Penal Code) and ordered his release. The Court’s decision was made public by the state-run Anadolu Agency.
"Propaganda" and "insult" trials
Altan was also charged with "spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization" and "insulting the president" in a separate case. The charges stemmed from an article Altan wrote in 2016, "Ezip Geçmek," which is also held among evidence against him in the "coup" trial.
The first hearing of this trial took place on 5 December 2017. Altan presented his defense statement during the hearing. At the second hearing, held on 4 January 2018, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion, demanding prison sentences for Altan on charges of “insulting the president” and "spreading propaganda for the terrorist organization (PKK)” through several expressions in Altan’s column.
The Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court sentenced Altan to 5 years and 11 months in prison for "spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization" and "insulting the president" in his column at the final hearing held on 28 February 2018. In his defense statement to the court, Altan asserted that he was put on trial twice for the same article.
On 19 March 2019, Altan was given a prison sentence of 11 months and 20 days on the charge of "insulting the president" in a separate case where the accusation stemmed from a 2016 article titled "Yeni Ergenekon" that was published on P24’s website. The 30th Criminal Court of First Instance of Istanbul commuted the sentence to a fine of TL 7,000.